Death of Priest Investigated Following Abuse Allegation

WHDH Channel 7
December 31, 2002

CONCORD, N.H. -- Authorities are investigating the death of a Roman Catholic priest from New London just days after he was accused of molesting a boy nearly 30 years ago.

Officials with the Diocese of Manchester called the death of the Very Rev. Richard Lower an apparent suicide, but police in Enfield, where the priest's body was found Sunday, said no cause of death had been determined.

Police Capt. Richard Crate said Monday that investigators do not suspect foul play, but said the cause of death was not obvious and may have been natural causes. He would not say whether Lower, 57, had left a note.

Crate said it could be weeks or months before tests by the state medical examiner provide any answers about Lower, who served at Our Lady of Fatima Parish.

A written statement by the diocese did not say why church officials suspected suicide, except to say the circumstances "indicate he may have taken his own life."

Patrick McGee, spokesman for the diocese, would not elaborate on why the church feels the death was suicide, but said he said he knew of no notes left by Lower.

According to the church's statement, the diocese was contacted on Dec. 26 by a man who accused Lower of sexual abuse in 1973 while the priest served at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Littleton.

The statement did not provide additional details about the alleged abuse, except that it involved a minor. Church officials also said this was the first report of sexual misconduct with a minor against Lower received by the diocese.

McGee said Lower had been accused of misconduct with a young man in 1989 while he served at St. John Neumann in Merrimack. McGee said Lower denied the allegation, but participated in a psychological evaluation. The evaluation cleared Lower for unrestricted work in ministry, McGee said.

Church officials said the alleged victim who came forward last week had been offered help finding counseling. He no longer lives in New Hampshire.

The Rev. Edward Arsenault, the diocese's delegate on sexual misconduct cases, said Lower was told of the accusation Thursday in Manchester. Lower decided he wanted to consult a civil lawyer and a canon lawyer before responding, Arsenault said. He then returned alone to New London.

On Friday, church officials determined the allegation was credible enough to investigate and that Lower should be placed on administrative leave, Arsenault said. They also reported it to the state attorney general's office and Littleton police.

Lower took his superiors' advice to seek support and went to a fellow priest and his doctor in the hours after he learned of the accusation. But by Friday evening, no one could find him, Arsenault said.

Family members and church officials notified New London police on Saturday that he was missing, and his family began looking for him in places they knew he enjoyed, Crate said. They went to Enfield, where he grew up, and found his car about 10 a.m. Sunday morning at the head of the Cole Pond Trail.

Around the same time, a hiker found his body a little way off the trail, not far from the parking lot, Crate said. Police believe he had been there for at least a day, because someone reported seeing his car at the trailhead Saturday.

Bishop John B. McCormack said Lower also was dealing with several medical problems, including chronic back and arthritic pain, and just last month his mother died.

"Despite our sorrow and hurt, we must be confident that God will resolve this conflict and heal this wound both for Father Lower and for us," McCormack wrote in a letter to New London parishioners.

"The days and weeks to come will be painful beyond words for Father Lower's sisters, his parish family and for us as his brother priests. We also need to pray for and continue to offer to assist the man who made this accusation," he wrote.

Lower's family also released a statement, which was distributed by the diocese. They said they were proud of Lower's work as a priest and called him their "strength through life's difficult struggles."

"On behalf of Father Dick and ourselves, if anyone was ever harmed by him, we ask that you forgive him and seek out someone to assist you in your own pain," the family wrote.

McGee said Arsenault and the church board that reviews allegations of sexual misconduct will continue their investigation, but it will be difficult without Lower's statement.

Under the agreement the diocese reached with the state attorney general's office earlier this month, the diocese can destroy the personnel file of any priest who has died, including lower. McGee said church officials had not decided yet what to do with his file. (AP)


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